Know much about science books?
The texts that school districts have to choose from can be riddled with embarrassing errors
According to a popular pre-algebra book, tennis star Venus Williams was 15 years old in 1997 and again in 1999—the year she turned 19 in real life.
The Statue of Liberty is made of bronze, not copper, says one elementary-school text.
The equator passes through the southern United States, swears another.
Sputnik, the Russian satellite, was actually a ballistic missile, reads one history book.
Some of the mistakes in textbooks used by California’s schoolchildren are the type of cringe-worthy fact errors that would get most professional writers fired. Others seem, at first glance, to be more esoteric, like a tiny exception to the rule excluded from the explanation of a scientific process.
But at the least it’s the stuff that can make parents wonder what else is wrong in their child’s schoolbooks.
William Bennetta has made a crusade of telling people about twisted texts, via his Textbook League, with a newsletter and Web site at www.textbookleague.org.
Good books are “few and far between,” he said in a telephone interview from Petaluma.
Of the list of books the Textbook League has railed against, the Chico Unified School District is currently using at least three: Earth Science, from Glencoe/McGraw-Hill; American Odyssey, from the same publisher; and the lab portion of Biology: Visualizing Life, from Holt. Several more of the titles in question are used in Chico schools, but from different edition years.
The year of publication makes little difference, says Bennetta, as publishers spew out new editions with little changed but the color of the book’s cover. “This is done deliberately to create confusion” and thereby sell more books, he said. “[School districts] buy what they’re told is a new book that isn’t new at all.”
To make it worse, he said, “they’re all copying each others’ work,” hiring “low-paid hacks” with no knowledge of the subject matter to churn out thick, brightly colored books with watered-down concepts.
Alan Stephenson, director of curriculum and testing for the CUSD, knows full well that not all books are perfect, but he’s satisfied with the texts Chico students are using to learn.
He said when groups such as the Textbook League raise concerns, it’s usually about science texts for middle- and high-school students. The texts attempt to cover a broad scope of knowledge, he said, and there’s not always the room or need to get in the degree of information professional scientists would like. “Many times the fringe people who are pointing out errors are looking at it purely from a content standpoint,” Stephenson said. For example, there may be a premise that 99.9 percent of the time holds true—"for the purpose of basic chemistry it’s true"—so the book doesn’t mention the exception.
“We want to make sure it’s something we can teach from,” he said.
“I would frankly not be surprised if there is not something, if you want to look under rocks, that isn’t quite 100 percent,” Stevenson said. “More than anything we find [errors] in teachers’ editions with the answer keys that aren’t right.”
In some subjects, like history, truth can be more subjective—for example, said Stephenson, the reason why the Civil War started. In middle school and high school, students get the overview, and in college “the course becomes much more focused and localized,” he explained.
Indeed, another textbook critic, William Beaty, has a section on his Web site posing the question: “Am I just a pedantic science nitpicker?” No, says Beaty, an advocate of critical thinking, because misconceptions in children’s textbooks lead to lifelong misunderstanding of important concepts.
Bennetta doesn’t consider his concerns frivolous either.
He calls American Odyssey—the book used in advanced-placement social-science classes at Chico High School—"pound for pound the worst American history book in terms of deliberately lying and deliberate misleading of students.”
Bennetta points to the inclusion of topics for their political correctness and then breaks them down to what he’s identified as errors of fact.
For example, he thinks American Odyssey‘s portrayal of American Indians and blacks perpetuates “victimism” by painting those cultures as perfect, never enslaving or mistreating anyone themselves.
“It’s PC rubbish, junk science, happy talk, fluff, feel-goodism and just make sure the child never has to think,” he said. The worst, he said, is “lying through selective omission.”
It’s also common, particularly in science books, for a text to ask the reader to apply a principle several chapters before it even presents that principle, Bennetta said.
Of Glencoe’s Earth Science, the 1999 version of which is used at Pleasant Valley High School, Bennetta called the then-new edition “an old, weak book with new window dressing.” He described the book as incoherent and containing “silly” passages, such as one implying that a teacher might be using natural chalk made of crushed sea animals, rather than the likely synthetic calcium sulfate. The book also confuses compaction with cementation. And, in a chapter about Pangaea, it pictures the continents as they exist now, not the large ancient land mass.
As for Holt’s Biology: Visualizing Life, which is used in PV biology classes, Bennetta didn’t have too many beefs with the main text, calling it a “superior” book, but flunked its associated lab program as too technology based.
Another watchdog group, Mathematically Correct, finds fault with numerous math texts, including the CPM series used in college-preparatory algebra, analysis and geometry courses at Chico High.
The group believes CPM, with its hands-on, group-work approach, is poorly organized, makes students dependent on one another and overlooks key concepts that would form a foundation for high math courses later.
In 1998, several California schools dropped the CPM program in favor of the traditional approach after too few students earned passing grades.
Another researcher, Professor John Hubisz of North Carolina State University, spent more than two years compiling a study detailing “clutter” and errors in science books. He listed mistakes like screwy periodic tables of the elements and a bungling of Newton’s law of motion.
He also found that it’s not usual for people to be listed as authors who didn’t really write any of the book.
The Association of American Publishers acknowledges that, of course, errors do creep into textbooks. Some are simple typos; others are the “relatively rare” fact errors. “Lastly,” the organization’s Web site states, “there are differences in interpretation of facts, a major source of reported ‘errors.’ In fact, these are not errors but differences of opinion.”
The association claims that its member publishers have complex systems of pre-publication fact checking but admits they are sometimes rushed to meet state adoption deadlines. “Errors are corrected. The process is ongoing and begins as soon as a mistake is discovered, but it does take time,” the association states.
In Texas, publishers in the early 1990s were fined millions of dollars for not making promised corrections of thousands of errors found in textbooks proposed for purchase by the state. Interestingly, the state ended up buying the books anyway.
The publishers—part of a $4 billion industry, not counting college-level books—are “a bunch of crooks and they’re lying,” Bennetta charged. But even more to blame, he claims, are the teachers who don’t know enough about the subjects they’re teaching to pick good books. He knows that’s a chilling indictment of the education system, and in fact he calls for a wholesale rebuilding of the teacher corps in the United States.
Also in the mix is politics. The standards in California are actually quite good, Bennetta said, but they’re of little power when state-appointed committees bow to publishers and approve books that don’t truly meet those standards. “Publishers are experts at simply borrowing words and phrases from standards.”
Stephenson, of the CUSD, agrees that publishers try hard to jump through the political hoops of getting their texts approved, clearing them for state funding. They know it’s “the flash” that often sells.
The district has adopted about 100 texts, including novels, since 1999-2000, and that’s the list the News & Review looked at for this article.
Committees, made up of educators and community members, review several of the books on the market and make a recommendation to their administrators and ultimately the school board. Trustees flip through the books, asking a few questions and sometimes taking one home for further review before signing off on them.
Stephenson said there could be controversy even among teachers about what book would be best. “Every teacher in the high school has a different view of what they want their textbook to look like,” he said.
The committee members evaluate the materials, using a checklist to say whether they meet such criteria as aligning with state and district standards, appropriateness to grade level, and whether the material provides “for the needs of English language learners.”
Bennetta said a better approach would be for the books proposed to be thoroughly researched, not just checked against a list of criteria. “School districts, who are the ultimate purchasers, need to recognize that they are not competent to pick books,” he said. He proposes an expensive mechanism: Hire real biologists to analyze a biology text and give them at least a year to report back. Still better would be for the publishers to hire competent people to write the books in the first place, he said.
George Roy, a Chico scholar who lost a bid for the school board last year, is more optimistic.
He has been critical of public-school curriculum in general and the MathLand program adopted by the CUSD specifically. (The program died a quiet death this year as the district adopted a more-traditional math series.)
“A key point about defining the curriculum is the textbooks,” he said. If the textbooks aren’t good and accurate, the entire course of study is off. “Education is this basic: It’s the curriculum, and then it’s getting good teachers who are allowed to teach and then measure the results with tests.”
He’s seen 600-page math books designed for third-graders—so hefty just so publishers can cram in all the standards states could possibly want.
“Most parents have no idea what’s going on in the curriculum," he said, calling for a parent uprising of sorts. "The parents need to be the voice of the people."